Nature is Sublime Even When Young

© Philip Jessup


Landscape into Photography

5 Nov


I came to landscape photography paddling a canoe as a teenager.

I was twelve years old when I began to experience nature. My hometown Washington D.C. was (and still is) remarkably wooded. After watching a double feature on Saturday afternoon at the the Calvert Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, my friends and I played ‘cowboys and Indians’, weaving erratically through a stand of oaks fringing the Holly Rood cemetery along Whitehaven Parkway. I’ve never forgotten the smoky tannin smell or the feel of corrugated bark against my skin when I pressed my face into old oak trees to hide.

As I grew older I hiked in Rock Creek Park and Dumbarton Oaks Park in warm weather partly to escape family arguments at home. The canopy was especially cool on hot, humid summer afternoons. Our house was cooled by an attic fan my father built — not every effective.

I purchased my first camera when I was a teenager — a Nikkormat — with earnings from my paper route. I brought the camera along with dozens of boxes of Kodachrome film on summer canoe trips into the Maine backwoods with my high school buddies. Those 35-mm slides held up well. I recently scanned, color corrected (Kodachrome shifts blue over time), and showed them at a high school reunion. Guffaws of laughter erupted as we relived our inexperienced youth coping with the Penobscot River’s rapids which we had no idea were so dangerous art the time.

Phil at age16 paddling down the Penobscot River with his Nikkormat, scanned on a drum scanner from a Kodachrome slide

Phil at age16 paddling down the Penobscot River with his Nikkormat, scanned on a drum scanner from a Kodachrome slide


My social status climbed a notch as I documented our efforts to stay afloat on Maine’s wild Rivers. Everyone paid attention to the photographer! The positive social feedback from my peers turned these multiple summer wilderness adventures into pure joy for me. I’ve loved being “in nature” ever since. The camera recorded and ordered these happy experiences. Thus I became enamoured with landscape photography — and color film. Oddly, despite the blood thirsty black flies, water snakes, and dangerous rapids, I felt safer in the Maine wilderness than back at home in Washington, where my parents tossed dishes at each other during their heated arguments. It is not surprising I have spent much of my subsequent professional life in jobs trying to protect the environment.

I’ve always been serious about photography. In 2004 I took six-month leave from my job as director of a City of Toronto’s climate agency to conduct an extensive photographic survey of Toronto’s largely ignored ravines. I was thrilled when Canadian Geographic Magazine offered to publish a selection of my images as a twelve page photo essay entitled, Secret Hollows in its annual environmental issue, May/June 2005. I was serene on those days alone with my Mamiya 7II medium format film away from the frantic politics of City Hall. I began to think about our love of nature and where it comes from.

The fabled Nikkormat!

The fabled Nikkormat!


Over millennia we have taken great pains to surround ourselves with gardens, domesticated animals, images of nature inscribed in murals, and paintings on home and office walls. Governments create and maintain parks for public benefit adopting policies and making expenditures that appeal across the political spectrum. Is this collective affinity built into our genes, a result of our evolution from hunters stalking the African savannah to farmers planting grains to urban dwellers arranging cacti on sunlit windowsills?

Scientist Edmund O. Wilson in Biophilia eloquently argues that humans have an innate tendency to seek out connection with other forms of life. This connection when fulfilled bestows an increased survival rate, psychological health, and when expressed in art, deep aesthetic pleasure.

A growing number of visual preference studies have found that European, North American, and Asian adults alike who are shown different images of natural and urban landscapes uniformly prefer nonthreatening pictures of savannah-like habitats, especially those where a water feature such as a lake is present. Such images facilitate positive shifts in emotional states as well as creativity in general.

As landscape photographers, then, we are mining fundamental psychological if not genetic traits of our fellow humans in our search for the sublime in nature. It not only involves communion with something much larger than ourselves, but our expression of certain visual cues that remind us of the food, water, and peace we required as a species.

The photographer to whom I turn when I need that peace is Fay Godwin (1931-2005), who is best known for her evocative — some would say melancholic — portraits of the English countryside. “If people look closely at my pictures, they might possibly see something else,” she has said.

Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981)

Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981)


In 1981 she photographed an enormous cumulus cloud hovering auspiciously over fertile farmland. She told Sue Lawley in a BBC Desert Island Discs interview that she had intended to photograph the Bilsington Monument, a memorial obelisk just to the left of the image. But the rare cloud suddenly appeared, so she swerved her camera to the right. The “poor old monument got left out,” she confessed to Young. This image is one of Godwin’s most popular, I suspect in part because the optimistic scene augurs a bountiful, orderly harvest.

This and Godwin’s other evocative images appeal to me because her communal feeling for the landscape comes through so strongly. She hadn’t planned this particular shot. She wasn’t looking for it. A passing moment of nature suddenly happened, and Godwin was there and prepared.

The landscape photographer with whom I strongly associate the sublime is Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984). As an early member of the Sierra Club, Adams used his base as a summer custodian at LeConte Memorial Lodge, the Club’s headquarters in Yosemite National Park, California, to make high country trips. Images that emerged were first published in the Sierra Club Bulletin.

Anne Hammond in her carefully researched, insightful book writes about the spiritual quest that informed Ansel Adams’s lifelong visual approach. In his early twenties Adams developed an abiding interest in the writings of Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who equated the value of “intimate knowledge” or spiritual apprehension of reality with scientific knowledge.  Paraphrasing Eddington, Hammond writes: “Reality consisted as much in feelings and moods excited by mystical contacts with nature as it did in our sense-impressions; in such moods we caught something of the true relation of the world to ourselves.”

Adams’s influential Zone System, a method for achieving subtle and repeatable tonal gradations in a B&W image, reflected his desire for a visual language that would invoke a heightened spiritual consciousness of nature. As quoted by Hammond, Adams expresses what he was in his poem, And Now the Vision:

Now the wide vision, now the burst of light,
Now the sweet recognition, now the song,
Shaking the depths of sky, rippling the sea.

The trees stand in ecstasy, the evening clouds
Move in stern phalanx before the lordly sun,
Night comes as fires burn on the darkening hills . . .

Dawn on the snow, noon on the clouds, night
On the urgency of love. If truth be known
No night would ever fall, no sun turn cold.

Ansel Adams,  The Tetons and the Snake River , National Archives and Records Administration (1942)

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River, National Archives and Records Administration (1942)


Adams was an environmental activist as well as a photographer.  The National Park Service commissioned him in 1941 to photograph western locales to be used for a mural at its Department of Interior headquarters in Washington. Although the mural was never built — World War II intervened — the images were used to build political support for the park system.

The Tetons and the Snake Riverimage below was one such image. I‘ve been fortunate to view it in several exhibits over the years. It never fails to give me goose bumps. Adams made prints at different points during his life. His last print, made in 1974 late in life, is a good deal darker than earlier prints, perhaps reflecting his outlook at the time. The image has become so iconic that it was included aboard Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977 and now speeds towards the outer reaches of the solar system.

Toronto, where I have lived for 30 years, is blessed with a large system of natural parks spread throughout its five watersheds. Mile-high glaciers melted 12,000 years ago, releasing rapidly flowing melt water that carved deep ravines in the glacial till. These became corridors for flood control, rail, cars, sewers, factories, and hydro lines. Fortunately, steep ravine walls and high water tables fortunately prevented further development. Pockets of wilderness remained resilient and began to expand. Today, the wooded areas and parks in these ravines have become a valuable though largely ignored City asset. They remind me of that oak glen near the Calvert Theater in Washington.

I shot the image below during my photographic sojourn from the City. After a day of shooting in Glendon Forest, I was hustling back to my parked car along the east side of the West Don River. Dusk approached. I was tired. Suddenly, I stumbled into a large clump of snake grass on the creek bank, a native plant that had I thought disappeared from the city. Indigenous peoples used the plant to treat horses afflicted with coughing diseases such as heaves.

The sun’s rays were piercing the canopy at a low angle, intensifying the orange and yellow colors of October’s dying foliage. I stopped and breathed deeply. This Technicolor moment would not last long. I quickly installed fresh Velvia 50 film, set up my tripod, and then took ten bracketed shots. Available light was fading fast.

The forested park spoke to me spiritually and — it seemed at the time — to me alone. I had paused and stopped worrying about making it back to the car before dark. Nature rewarded me with sunlight making a day’s last stand among ancient plants and dying red oak and American beech tree leaves, blasting me in contrasting colors expressing the yin and yang of that moment. The warmth of summer was going. The cold of winter approached. This image subsequently won a bronze medal in the Royal Photographic Society’s 148th annual international print competition in 2005, giving me confidence to step up my photographic game.

Philip Jessup,  Snake Grass, West Don River, Toronto  (2003)

Philip Jessup, Snake Grass, West Don River, Toronto (2003)


In order to speed my own photographic journey, several years ago I began researching the origins of landscape art and image making. This blog is a result of that ongoing effort. It gives me a chance to ask the question: why does nature inspire so much meaning and awe in us? Over the coming year I’ll share with you the work of landscape painters and photographers — and writings — that inspire me and are helping me further develop my expressive style.

Next post:  Minoans painted the first landscapes 3,500 years ago. Why them — in the middle of the Mediterranean?


Photo: P. Jessup, photographer, Peter Steele Viewing the Sunset on Lobster Lake, Maine (1964)

Photo: Unknown photographer, Phil Jessup Paddling on the Allagash River, Maine (1964)

Photo: Fay Godwin, White Cloud Near Bilsington, Kent (1981) ©The British Museum

Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1984)

Roger S. Uhlrich, Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes in Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, editors, The Biophilia Hypothesis, Island Press, Washington D.C. (1993)

Sue Lawley, Interview with Fay Godwin, BBC Radio 4, Desert Island Disks (March 2002)

Ann Hammond, Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, Yale University Press, New Haven (2002)

Photo: Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River, National Archives and Records Administration. Records of the National Park Service (1942)

Photo: Philip Jessup, Snake Grass, West Don River, Waterways series (2003)

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Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts our selves into perspective. We are part of something very big. But today nature is vanishing. Rapidly. I’ve started this blog to explore how painters and photographers, including myself, have expressed their love of nature in their art. Maybe what we do as photographers can lead to actions that help shift the tide in favor of beauty.

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